Ever since announcing that he has cancer, the status of Hugo Chavez’s health and longevity has been an issue of great interest for those concerned about the future of Venezuela.
Understandably, it is logical to hope that Chavez’s death will lead to a better future as he is considered to be a man who carries a very dictatorial and inflexible ideology. Such ideology guides Venezuela’s domestic and foreign policy. Therefore, it is hoped that the death of the Bolivarian leader may lead to a more pragmatic approach with more democracy and less anti-Americanism as well as a more positive foreign policy.
This type of argument has no sufficient foundation on which to be sustained. Looking at history, we see that, in those countries where the death of a leader led to radical change was, in fact, an exception.
For example, in Spain, the death of Francisco Franco led to a transition to democracy after 36 years of authoritarian rule. However, in Spain there were gradual changes that enabled the transition after the death of the “Generalissimo”. First, the Spanish state evolved form being a European fascist type of regime following the Italian model to being an authoritarian regime that focused on economic development and moved Spain in the direction of a modern society. Whatever the intentions of Franco were, the economic modernization of the regime unleashed a number of important forces that generated tensions with the regime, particularly a business community, industrial sector, and other sectors and organizations that grew stronger and more independent. The regime could not control society as it had intended. Furthermore, it was forced to show some flexibility. At one point more strikes were registered in Franco’s Spain than in the rest of Europe. Likewise, Spain’s being part of continental Europe felt the pressure of the environment to democratize since being a democratic state was a pre-condition to be part of the European Common Market. At the time of Franco’s death there was a civil society in place ready for democracy. The transition was possible thanks to Adolfo Suarez, a man loyal to Franco. Furthermore, Spanish public opinion supported democracy and rejected the alternative after almost four decades of dictatorship.
On the other hand, in countries such as the Soviet Union after the death of Joseph Stalin or Iran after the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the death of the strong man did not lead to democracy. Authoritarian structures remained in place . In the post-Stalin Soviet Union, no group was allowed to organize without permission and sponsorship of the government, even if the group was not political. Censorship and state-control of society continued. Moreover, despite the repudiation of Stalin by his immediate successor, Nikita Khrushchev, a less murderous Stalinism prevailed but Stalinim prevailed, nonetheless. Repression and the gulag remained alive for a long time. Hungary and Czechoslovakia were both crushed by Soviet invasions at the moment these Soviet satellite countries experienced revolts or considered reforms. It was only by the initiative of Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980’s that the Soviet Union began a transformation that led to its collapse.
In Iran, the death of Ayatollah Khomeini ten years after the revolution not only failed to lead to a transition but those reformers such as Muhammad Khatami (1997-2005) failed in their attempts to make the regime more open and flexible. Khatami, indeed, advocated for issues such as freedom of expression, foreign investment, free market and better foreign relations. However, it was undermined by a structure built by Khomeini that gathered a group of hardliners that provided continuity to the regime.
The Case of Venezuela
After his death, Hugo Chavez leaves behind a revolutionary process that is not only domestic but also transnational. He leaves a thirteen year old government that provided Chavez with enough time to purge members of the military and fill the army with loyal officers, many of whom live in luxurious homes and enjoy a life-style not easy to give up. This military is likely to resist change unless a new government provides them with the same conditions (all this assuming that these officers are opportunists and are not necessarily identified with the Bolivarian ideology). But even if these officers are true democrats that reject Chavez, the Bolivarian regime has already in place para-military groups such as the Bolivarian Circles. It has also created a militia that responds directly to the executive branch. As things are defined now, Para-military forces and even militias might be filled with “fighters” from other groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and even Middle Eastern terrorist groups such as Hezbollah; two groups Chavez has embraced.
Secondly, the regime has created a network of people who have benefitted from his regime and would like to see continuity. This includes the “boliburguesia” , which is a business class that has made its wealth not from its hard work and devotion but by virtue of its connections to the state.
Henry Rangel Silva, now defense minister and former intelligence chief of the Venezuelan Army, said in a newspaper interview that the military would not accept an opposition victory in the October, 2012 election. His appointment later as Minister of Defense confirms that the Bolivarian leadership will provide continuity to the Bolivarian revolution regardless of an opposition victory in the upcoming election.
Nelson Bocaranda, who is a columnist for the Venezuelan daily El Universal, revealed that in Cuba there was a meeting between Hugo Chavez, Raul Castro, six Cuban generals and eight pro-Chavez Venezuelan generals, including the Minister of Defense, Rangel Silva. The discussion was focused on possible scenarios after the death of the Bolivarian leader. Bocaranda reports that among the issues considered was the possibility of creating a situation of chaos including violence and looting which would provide an excuse for the military and other non-military security forces to carry out a self-coup.
This suggestion was brought by no other than Rangel Silva who said, even before the trip to Cuba, that the Venezuelan armed forces “are now Chavistas”.
These revelations should not surprise anybody who has been following the course of the Bolivarian revolution and its absolutist tendencies.
But there are other unfortunate elements at play here.
At present, polls indicate that Hugo Chavez enjoys an eighteen point advantage over his opponent, Henrique Capriles Radonski. Of course, this can change in the future but it still indicates that the majority of the Venezuelan population is more fascinated by Chavez’s welfare populism than disgusted by his anti-democratic and often violent practices. This is very much contrary to the dominant spirit of the Spanish people in the aftermath of Franco’s death that regarded democracy as a goal to be achieved.
Moreover ,the Bolivarian revolution lives in a continental environment that values nationalism, populism and welfare policies above liberal democracy. His partners in the Bolivarian countries such as Cuba, Nicaragua, Ecuador and Bolivia love Hugo Chavez for providing them with financial ideological support. Chavez also remains a symbol of liberation of Latin America (“Nuestra America”) for grassroots organizations including many indigenous organizations. The leaders of non-Bolivarian countries such as Argentina and Uruguay admire him and he is more than acceptable in the eyes of the leaders of Brazil, the fastest growing economy and democracy in the region.
Social justice and social equalities are the key codes for which democracy is sacrificed in Latin America, very much unlike in Europe of four decades ago, where Spain’s economic growth and opportunity was not enough of a condition for Spain’s acceptance in the community of European countries.
The Bolivarian revolution has not yet been defined as a dictatorship. The existence of regular elections has distorted the fact that between elections there is intimidation of judges, violence, persecution of the opposition and restrictions on the media. The principle of national sovereignty stands above international demands for human rights. For the U.S government, the trauma of the war in Iraq and our image as nasty and interventionist has prevented it from even stating that the Bolivarian regime is not a democracy. The Bolivarian regime is a dictatorship legitimized by a doubtful electoral process that uses state resources to perpetuate its power and uses intimidation tactics to influence their vote. (For more information see this article).
“Chavismo without Chavez” seems to be the winner supported not only by what has been described above but also with an overwhelming dose of indifference in the region. The United States government has also run out of imagination and is crippled by inaction.
The word democracy was not heard at the Summit of the Americas that took place in mid- April in Colombia. Perhaps there is another word we can use to replace the word ”democracy” as the word “terrorism” was replaced by “man-caused disaster”.
If there is such a word we have not heard it yet. As Winston Churchill pointed out after his predecessor Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich “You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor and you will have war”.
We would say after the last Summit of the Americas to our American government: “You were given the choice between speaking up for freedom and surrender to the majority. You chose the latter. You will have tyranny”
THE AMERICAS REPORT
NANCY MENGES and
LUIS FLEISCHMAN, Editors
The Americas Report is the featured product of the Center for Security Policy‘s Menges Hemispheric Security Project. It features in-depth, original articles on subjects not regularly covered by the American press.
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